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Hard-to-digest wheat agenda

New Delhi, June 15: When the Union cabinet meets on Friday at 11 am, the ministers would have to take extra care in clearing the last of the 15 items on the agenda before them.

They will have to decide whether those buying wheat under the public distribution system should be allowed to consume imported grain with higher levels of foreign matter (e.g. impurities of animal origin such as rodent hair or droppings, uric acid as well as pesticide residue) and more weevil-eaten than permitted under the law. Weevils are small insects that destroy crops.

The food and civil supplies ministry under Sharad Pawar has moved a note for a “short-period tender” of 22 lakh tonnes of wheat import by the State Trading Corporation.

Pawar’s ministry, which is already embroiled in a controversial wheat import deal with Australia, wants a one-time exception to lower wheat safety norms for these imports.

If the cabinet approves this, there will be two wheat safety norms in the country ' a stringent set for domestic farmers and a ‘relaxed’ regime for foreign grains.

The ministry has apparently given three reasons for seeking the one-time exception. It claims that it is unable to source wheat imports that match the safety standards specified under the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (PFA).

In other words, wheat that meets Indian standards may not be available at an affordable price and, therefore, sub-standard imports should be allowed.

The ministry claims that a committee of secretaries has discussed the issue and its recommendation was to take the matter to cabinet.

The ministry also says that it has been advised that the PFA standards can only be changed and not relaxed ' i.e. there cannot be two food safety standards for edible wheat in the country. However, the overall safety standard can be changed if that is the wisdom of the day.

The legislative and legal process to change the safety norms can take more than three months. Pawar’s ministry is obviously not willing to wait so long.

Those opposed to the relaxation of wheat safety norms say there is nothing like a “one-time dispensation” because nothing can prevent such a relaxation being cited as a precedent the next time the country wants to import wheat.

And why should the poor of this country, who use the public distribution system, be forced to eat sub-standard wheat, they ask.

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